The solidly pro-union newspaper, The News Letter, has launched an editorial campaign to revise the contested history of the Irish-British Troubles, the prolonged conflict in the United Kingdom’s anomalous territory in the north-east of Ireland, recasting the role of the UK’s “security forces” in a more flattering light. Through a series of opinions pieces, heavy on the rhetoric, light on the facts, the publication has batted away the many criticisms of the British military and paramilitary contingents during the war, categorising their habitual excesses as accidents, heat-of-the-moment reactions or the responsibility of rogue individuals. One presumes that the above excuses cover such notable incidents as the Ballymurphy Massacre of 1971 or the Bloody Sunday Massacre of 1972.
However this contribution to the newspaper’s campaign by William Matchett, a former officer of the Royal Ulster Constabulary turned author, is a reminder that recent history is not as malleable as some would like to believe. Regardless of whatever side they fall upon or whatever their intention. Speaking of the regional and international peace accords which ended the war, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, Matchett complains that the compromise settlement was a:
…political expedient for all sides and London was to focus legacy justice on the state.
The big casualty was a courageous constabulary that, supported by soldiers, defeated the main aggressor — PIRA…
If the UK’s paramilitary police in the disputed Six Counties had “defeated” the Irish Republican Army during the course of the 1966-2005 conflict, why was there a need for an “expedient” peace process in the first place? One which required the commitment of governments and administrations in London, Dublin and Washington? Which necessitated the input of the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Féin, and which the insurgent movement drove and steered through a strategy of intermittent military actions in Ireland and Britain? Why would the British negotiate with their decades-old foe, initially in private, later in public, if some sort of comprehensive victory had already been achieved?
In fact, the writer cannot escape the contradictions inherent in his own arguments when he admits that the United Kingdom’s policies in the late 1990s and early 2000s were about “resigning the RUC to history” while former guerrillas were given:
…immunity from prosecution, such as alleged PIRA Hyde Park bomber John Downey; immunity for destroying murder weapons in decommissioning; immunity for locating the disappeared: and of course, early release of prisoners. As government inoculated terrorists from criminal justice with one hand, it passed law to investigate police officers with the other.
Young squaddies suffered terribly at the start of the Troubles. Then, the RUC took the brunt…
Many people today who speak loudest of rights once woke up with murder in mind and balaclava in hand. There were 15,000 terrorist bombings, nearly all by PIRA. Most police officers felt the cold breath of death at least once.
Thousands injured. Mortars. Grenades. Landmines. Tank-busting bullets. Tending wounded and dying.
PIRA faced nothing comparable. A ‘volunteer’s’ survival chances were three times greater than a member of the security forces. In 1983 Interpol rated Northern Ireland the most dangerous place in the world to be a police officer. It should have added, and safest to be a terrorist.
Does this summation sound like the description of a historical military or political environment in which the defeat of “PIRA” can be found? To even speak in such terms is to misunderstand the nature of the conflict and the flawed if lasting settlement which brought it to an end. A settlement based upon a series of extraordinarily difficult compromises reached through years of hard work by all sides.